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Small talk

Speech-bubble-quote-backgroundWords matter.  Just ask BP''s Swedish chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg. 


No one seemed willing to cut him any slack for trying to be colloquial in responding to criticism that large oil companies are "greedy" and "don't care" how their operations impact people.   "That is not the case in BP," he said.  "We do care about the small people." 


Okay, English is not Svanberg's first language, and I'd like to see how well the chattering commentariat would do in Swedish. What he probably meant was "little" people.  But his remarks still kicked up a storm and were broadly cited as yet another example that BP was so deeply out-of-touch it might never be able to resurface in the land of the sentient.  


"Little people," of course, is short-hand for the powerless and the disenfranchised. In BP's case, it included thousands of small businesses and families across the Gulf Region who bridled at the reminder that they were at the oil giant's mercy. Unfairly or not, Svanberg's ill-chosen language reinforced their victimhood. 


But the reason it got so much pick-up goes deeper -- it unwittingly reinforced the perception that the company doesn't identify with the Gulf Coast communities and, in fact, considers all those good people along the coast a necessary nuisance to be dealt with.  


BP may be the worst latest example, but many companies are clueless when it comes to dealing with anyone but the money managers whose daily trading determines their stock price.  Very few companies know how to deal with "the other" and, sadly, people no longer  have to be terribly exotic to count as
"aliens" to some companies
.


Words matter because they are sometimes the clearest window into what's really going on.




What is PR?

BPlogoWhatever PR is, BP’s is horrible.  Toyota’s was almost as bad.  Ditto Tiger’s.  And the Pope's.

Or at least that’s the pundit-wide consensus.  But this may be another case of the pundits coming to the right conclusion for the wrong reasons.  

Few of them would confuse PR with substance.  When they knock BP for “bad PR,” what they really mean is that the company hasn’t handled its communications very well.  As one talking head put it, “BP’s CEO could hardly take a breath during his Congressional testimony because his foot always seemed to be in his mouth.”  

True enough.  But BP’s bad PR has much more to do with its actions than with its words.  And those actions began long before the Deepwater Horizon cratered in the Gulf of Mexico.

The best definition of PR I have ever heard came from my friend and former boss, Marilyn Laurie, who I have quoted here before.  "The purpose of PR,” she told us, “is to bring the policies and practices of an institution into harmony with the needs and expectations of the public."  

Sometimes that means persuading the public that the institution is doing the right thing; sometimes it means persuading the institution to change its behavior.  But – as Marilyn added, somewhat prophetically for AT&T as it turned out – When they fall out of alignment there is almost always hell to pay." 

BP’s PR problem is not that they have a tin ear for the media or that their messaging is inept.  It’s that they didn’t pay enough attention to aligning their interests and the public’s.  That was true long before they began lowering their drill bits into the Gulf’s deep waters.  And their "PR" won't get better until they prove through their actions that their interests and the public's are finally in sync.